Carlene Carter is all smiles in the cover photograph of her new album. She’s cradling a big, beautiful old guitar that once belonged to her grandmother, Mother Maybelle of the Carter Family. She’s looking up and, perhaps more improbably, Carter looks at peace.
That’s not a common observation about Carter, the daughter of country singers June Carter Cash and Carl Smith, and the stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. She was the real wild child every family has, her antics as “the rockingest country girl in the universe,” as she remembers it, played out on stages and in tabloids.
But building on the foundation she laid on 2008’s “Stronger,” her first album in more than a decade, Carter arrives as a different artist on her latest. “Carter Girl” is a thoughtful communion with the songs made famous by the Carter Family, the trio of A.P., Sara, and Maybelle, who are considered the first family of country music dating to the 1920s.
Her new album is a revelation. She’s singing with more nuance, still kicking up dust on rootsy rockers. She’s also telling stories that resonate even more after a lifetime of joys and hard knocks. Carter, at 59, is a survivor and, man, does she have great stories to tell. (She’ll tell plenty of them at her show at the Center for Arts in Natick on Saturday.)
“Carter Girl” is the album she always knew she would get around to making. Working with producer Don Was, she reimagined 11 songs from the Carter Family canon across three generations. Revisiting hundreds of songs, she started with everything she remembered and then went deeper with online research. Next up she asked family members for their input, and eventually she burrowed into “In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain,” the definitive Carter Family box set.
“It was a matter of whether a song spoke to me and if I could own it,” Carter says of the final track listing. “That was one of the greatest challenges for me. I never really recorded others’ songs that much, and I had to wrap my head around the fact that these are my songs, too.”
Carter rerecorded “Me and the Wildwood Rose,” an older song she had written about her grandmother’s passing that means more to her now. She also adapted A.P. Carter’s “Lonesome Valley” to reflect the tremendous amount of loss she experienced in 2003, including the deaths of both her mother and Cash. It’s the record’s sucker punch to the gut, a reminder that we all have to weather storms.
It’s a testament to Carter’s buoyant spirit and Was’s clean production that these songs sound so contemporary, yet also timeless. Carter credits Was for “having great ears” and bringing “a chill factor” to the proceedings. She also enlisted guest vocalists, including Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill, and Elizabeth Cook.
This turn of events was anything but inevitable. Carter launched her career in the late 1970s and created a masterpiece with 1980’s eclectic “Musical Shapes,” produced by English rocker Nick Lowe, her husband at the time. She hit hard on country radio with her 1990 album, “I Fell in Love,” and kept the momentum rolling with “Little Love Letters.”
In concert, she played up a spitfire version of herself — turning cartwheels onstage in plastic mini skirts, climbing up on the rafters, dancing on the “friggin’ PA system” — until she inevitably got burnt out. “Then I got all screwed up,” she says.
By the early 2000s, Carter was known more for tawdry headlines: drug busts, car theft, bounced checks. Her partner in crime, in both turns of the phrase, was Howie Epstein, a bassist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who died of complications from drug abuse in 2003.
Those days are behind her. Carter lives in California now, and on the morning we speak, she’s halfway into the French-press coffee her husband, Joe Breen, has made. “You got a warm, fuzzy little Carlene on the phone,” she purrs, her voice exuding some of the husk that has come with age — and cigarettes.
“Oh, you heard the lighter?” she wonders with a laugh when asked if she smokes. “I’m trying to quit, but, you know, it’s the last little thing I’m giving up.”
“Everything she has done has been really fresh,” says Tracy Gershon, vice president of A&R for Rounder Records, which released “Carter Girl” in April. She and Carter go back more than 20 years, and Gershon has watched her friend evolve in ways few others have.
“She’s country music royalty, but she has always walked in her own path,” Gershon says. “How daunting would it be to have those parents? There were such high expectations for her, but with Carlene, she has always made Carlene music.”
“It wasn’t a burden for me, because I knew from the get-go that the first two paragraphs about anything I ever did was going to talk about my pedigree or everybody that I’m related to,” Carter says. (And yes, this article confirms that.)
“Carter Girl” is one more achievement in a year full of them. In January she’ll go on the road with John Mellencamp as his opening act on an 80-city tour (including a stop at the Citi Wang Theatre on April 15). She’s also a featured backing vocalist in “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” a touring musical production Mellencamp collaborated on with Stephen King and T Bone Burnett. (It comes to Emerson Colonial Theatre on Nov. 21.)
Of her moment in the sun, Carter says she’s relishing what amounts to a renaissance. What, exactly, did she imagine for herself at this point in her career?
“I had hoped for the best,” she says, “and this is the best right now.”